Originally created 10/04/04

New host slithers onto Animal Planet

NEW YORK - Animal Planet has a new snake in the grass. And his name is Austin Stevens.

The keepers at the cable network are billing Stevens, aka the "Snakemaster," and his new show as the slithery descendant of "The Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, but the South African snake wrangler doesn't even know Irwin by name.

During a phone call from his home in Namibia, Stevens said he'd only seen "bits and pieces of the Australian guy."

"He seems to be pretty good," Stevens told the AP.

What Stevens lacks in Animal Planet host familiarity, he makes up for in snake knowledge. The 54-year-old is a photographer and herpetologist who's studied hundreds of species. In 1986, he spent 107 days in a glass cage with 36 deadly snakes to stimulate awareness of the plight of the African gorilla.

During the 13 episodes of "Austin Stevens: Snakemaster," which premieres Oct. 5, Stevens travels from Arizona to Borneo in search of the world's rarest reptiles, such as the Western diamondback rattlesnake and the king cobra.

"People fear them so much and they're so misunderstood," said Stevens, who's been bitten so many times he only keeps track of lethal bites.

Although Stevens has hosted Animal Planet specials, this is his first U.S. series. And the kung fu black belt is particularly frank about his on-camera skills.

"I don't set anything up," said Stevens. "I don't arrange anything. I talk as best as I can. I'm not a narrator. I'm just a little bushman who knows something about wildlife. I'm not trying to ham it up in any way."

His next conquest wasn't a cobra or a python - it was David Letterman. He was set to appear on CBS' "Late Show" Wednesday night with snakes in tow.

Stevens knows the talk-show host's name. Sorta.

"I'm afraid I don't really know Letterman," said Stevens. "I've seen his show a few times. He seems like a nice guy."

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